Property owners missing in action

Possession: Many parcels in Maryland have nonexistent or elusive landholders.

October 13, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Standing by the side of Old Annapolis Road, just east of Centennial Park, near some of the most expensive suburban real estate Howard County has to offer, it is hard to imagine a half-acre of land within shouting distance that does not belong to anyone.

But here and elsewhere across the Baltimore region, uncounted unclaimed pieces of property lurk.

Discovering unowned real estate might seem a stroke of good luck. The problem is, finders are not necessarily keepers, not even a government agency that needs to build a road.

"They are a disproportionate drain on our time and expenses," sighed Janet Bush Handy, deputy counsel for the State Highway Administration, which uncovers a sliver or two in the way of projects every year. "With these old titles, you can end up with gaps."

Howard County's Department of Public Works runs across small pieces of land with dead-end ownership records about a half-dozen times a year and will shift projects to avoid them. The other Baltimore suburbs do not see cases that frequently - Baltimore County's land acquisition staff can think of fewer than a half-dozen since 1990.

What's worse is if the unowned property holds an empty building with the power to ruin a neighborhood.

"This is a huge problem in Baltimore City," said Brenda Bratton Blom, a University of Maryland School of Law assistant professor who helps with community development work in low-income areas.

"If it happens in a neighborhood that's a solid neighborhood and we're doing what we can to shore it up, it can be devastating," said Alex Strubing, a code enforcement attorney for Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development. "Every house counts."

But municipalities cannot be squatters. If they want it, they have to ask the courts to condemn it, which can easily take a year.

It's not free, either. Juries name an amount, which eventually goes to the state's unclaimed property fund, and there it may sit forever.

A relatively small portion of the 14,000 abandoned and unfit properties in Baltimore are unowned, but they are a migraine headache for the code enforcers. Baltimore uses the power of eminent domain only when whole areas are set to be redeveloped, not for individual properties, said Julie Day, acting director of the city housing department's code enforcement legal section.

Instead, code enforcers work like detectives to find someone to pin the property on so he or she can be held accountable.

But sometimes there is truly no one to deal with. Enforcers are watching and hoping that nearly 20 properties belonging to a man who died last year, leaving no apparent heir, will be bought at tax sales.

"It comes up weekly in our office ... that ownership is unclear, and often that leads to the discovery that there is no actual owner," Day said.

In the suburbs, higher values make it less likely that homes will just sit around when the title holder dies. Usually the orphan real estate is undeveloped land in plain view - and quite possibly everyone thinks it is owned by someone else.

Counties can point to unaccounted-for fragments of neighborhoods that got lost in the shuffle when the subdivisions were designed decades ago.

"Oftentimes it's just very small pieces next to highways that people forgot about," said Richard E. Basehoar, a Howard County solicitor.

Unattached land might seem extraordinary in a country as attached to property rights as the United States, but some think it is remarkable that these mistakes do not happen more often.

"There's literally thousands of things that happen with a transfer, line by line, that can make a difference," said Kent T. Finkelsen, assistant supervisor for assessments in Howard County. "Every time something is broken up - you have a hundred-acre farm in Ellicott City, now you have 200 lots - well, now you have 200 chances to make another error."

Rarely does his office deal with suddenly "found" property. But if anyone totaled up all the acreage listed in deeds and then had the land professionally surveyed, "I would doubt in any place in the United States that they'd be the same," Finkelsen said.

Legally, state governments can claim the land if no one else does, said Austin J. Jaffe, a property rights expert. "The state is like the owner of last resort ... because of this tradition that the land needs to be owned by someone," he said.

But if the state does not go to court to make that claim, the land sits in limbo, he said. That's why local governments end up before a judge, suing owners unknown, when they need it themselves.

Howard County's Department of Public Works expects to go to Circuit Court next year so it can build a pathway over the 40-foot-wide strip of land that ends near Old Annapolis Road, owned by a corporation that came to an end in 1962.

Sometimes local governments discover that apparently unpossessed land has all sorts of people waiting on the sidelines to stake a claim.

The required "speak now or forever hold your peace" ads that ran in 1990 for land beside Mayfield Avenue in Elkridge - due for an extra turn lane - flushed out 61 people.

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